When Virgin business class was a real game-changer

We look back to the all-to-brief era of intense competition at the pointy end of Australia’s domestic market.

By David Flynn, June 21 2024
When Virgin business class was a real game-changer

Thirteen is supposed to be an unlucky number – but for Australia’s business class travellers, 13 years ago saw the start of a dramatic uplift in the premium airline experience, sparked by competition from a newly-aggressive Virgin Australia.

After being transformed from the low-cost Virgin Blue into the full-service Virgin Australia, the airline – helmed by 36-year Qantas veteran and executive John Borghetti – changed course to go head-to-head with the Flying Kangaroo.

Nowhere was this new direction more marked than an attack on Qantas’ monopoly on the Australian corporate travel market, and especially the motherlode of high flyers shuttling between the east coast capitals and Australia's resource-rich west.

Virgin began challenging Qantas for a hefty slice of the domestic business travel market with a fleet of international-grade Airbus A330s which initially darted between the east coast capitals and Perth before taking on Virgin’s short-lived Sydney-Hong Kong and Melbourne-Hong Kong routes.

Virgin Australia's flagship A330 business class.
Virgin Australia's flagship A330 business class.

That chapter has of course long since closed, with Virgin’s new owner Bain Capital scuppering all A330 and Boeing 777 jets in August 2020 as part of a sweeping ‘rescue, rightsize and reboot’ plan after the airline’s collapse into administration facing debts of $6.8 billion and a travel market gutted by the global pandemic.

But there’s no doubt the aerial dogfight between Qantas and Virgin made premium passengers the winners – and it started in May 2011 when the rebranding of Virgin Blue as Virgin Australia triggered a turf war between challenger and incumbent.

Sir Richard Branson kicked off the relaunch of vb to Virgin Australia.
Sir Richard Branson kicked off the relaunch of vb to Virgin Australia.

Spearheading this were the airline’s first Airbus A330s, previously leased to Emirates and now carrying not only Virgin’s new livery but international grade business class seats boasting twice the legroom of Qantas’ own A330s.

Virgin's A330 jets ushered in a new era of competition for domestic business class.
Virgin's A330 jets ushered in a new era of competition for domestic business class.

The fact they were lay-back recliners rather than llei-flat beds, and arranged in rows of 2-3-2 rather than today’s standard of 1-2-1 with direct aisle access for every passenger, needs to be considered in the context of over a decade ago.

Formerly flown by Emirates, Virgin's first A330s sported this 2-3-2 business class.
Formerly flown by Emirates, Virgin's first A330s sported this 2-3-2 business class.

(In fact, there are still some today who suggest this type of seat would be more appropriate for the 4-6 hour east-west journey if having almost twice as many seats in the business class cabin delivered lower fares.)

Formerly flown by Emirates, Virgin's first A330s sported this 2-3-2 business class.
Formerly flown by Emirates, Virgin's first A330s sported this 2-3-2 business class.

Marketed under a new Coast to Coast brand, business travellers also enjoy limousine transfers, a coat-check service, amenity kits and premium inflight meals from Aussie chef Luke Mangan.

Virgin's Coast to Coast A330 service raised the bar for business class travellers.
Virgin's Coast to Coast A330 service raised the bar for business class travellers.

The following month, in response to Virgin's east-west assault, Qantas rolled out the big guns by rostering one of its international Boeing 747 jets – with not only one hundred extra seats but angled flat-beds in business class – onto the Sydney-Perth route.

It was a short sprint for the mighty jumbo which was typically bound for Asia, Europe or the USA, but within months Qantas pulled the gas-guzzling jumbos off the transcon trek, leaving it to a melange of Airbus A330s and Boeing 767s with ranks of close-quartered domestic-grade business class recliners.

Yet by January 2012, barely six months into the pitched Qantas-vs-Virgin battle, average business class fares across all domestic routes had tumbled by 27%.

April 2012 saw Virgin pick up the keys delivery of the first of six new Airbus A330s boasting angled-flatbed business class seats.

Virgin's second-gen A330 business class.
Virgin's second-gen A330 business class.

With extra storage for carry-on kit, large video-on-demand screens plus AC and USB sockets for every passenger, they propelled the Virgin Australia Coast to Coast business proposition well ahead of Qantas’ best domestic efforts.

Virgin's second-gen A330 business class.
Virgin's second-gen A330 business class.

“I don’t know of another airline that has a product of this standard in a domestic service anywhere in the world,” Borghetti remarked.

Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti on the delivery flight of the first A330 with the all-new business class.
Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti on the delivery flight of the first A330 with the all-new business class.

“It costs you the same to design something well as it does to design something that’s not nice, so why not design something that’s nice?”

Virgin's second-gen A330 business class.
Virgin's second-gen A330 business class.

Expectations were high that Qantas would seek to not only catch up to Virgin’s A330 business class but leapfrog it.

But the arrival of a factory-fresh A330 from Airbus’ Toulouse assembly line to the hangars at Mascot in November 2012 is greeted with dismay when it was revealed to have identical business class seats as its predecessors.

The only concession to improved passenger comfort was a plastic shroud covering the middle seat, to provide what the airline calls an ‘inflight workspace’ for the shared use of passengers on either side.

Qantas' underwhelming A330 business class.
Qantas' underwhelming A330 business class.

Stung by the criticism, then-Qantas CEO Alan Joyce pledged at the airline's then-annual Christmas drinks with media – in what appears to be an off-the-cuff remark, made without any accompanying PR fanfare – that an all-new A330 business class is on the way, tipping the possibility of fully lie-flat beds.

Two months later, in February 2013, Joyce confirmed Qantas will upgrade its entire fleet of domestic and international Airbus A330s with lie-flat business class from the end of 2014.

“They’ll be the best domestic product anywhere in the world,” Joyce promised, “and they leapfrog anything our competitor’s doing.”

That business class seat broke cover in August 2013 as the Qantas Business Suite: a 1-2-1 layout gives every traveller direct aisle access, while the seats can adopt in a reclined position for taxi and take-off before going into fully-flat mode.

Initial concept renders of the Qantas A330 Business Suite.
Initial concept renders of the Qantas A330 Business Suite.

Creature comforts include extra-large video screens, a spacious side table plus a nook for stowing tablets, laptops and magazines, and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

Modified, redressed and finessed by designers in the journey from drawing board to departure gate, the Business Suite is officially unveiled in October 2014, ahead of a domestic debut in December 2014 (and with flights to Asia to follow from early 2015).

First photos of the Qantas A330 Business Suite.
First photos of the Qantas A330 Business Suite.

It becomes the foundation of Qantas flagship business class for the next decade, with a revised version adorning the business class cabin of Qantas’ Boeing 787 Dreamliners and Airbus A380 superjumbos.

The Qantas Business Suite has become the airline's flagship business class.
The Qantas Business Suite has become the airline's flagship business class.

But Virgin boss Borghetti has never been one to sleep at the wheel: in September 2014, one month before Qantas pulls back the curtain on its Business Suite, he counters with his own premium cabin power-play for the A330s and the US-bound Boeing 777s.

Virgin Australia's The Business adorned both A330s and 777s.
Virgin Australia's The Business adorned both A330s and 777s.

To be sold simply as ‘The Business’, Borghetti touts the seat as being more of a “business first’’ offering rather than a conventional business class seat.

Virgin Australia's The Business adorned both A330s and 777s.
Virgin Australia's The Business adorned both A330s and 777s.

Dressed in striking charcoal with brushed aluminium trim and inspired by luxury automotive interiors– (at one stage car nut Borgetti drags his designers into a parking lot to pore over a Porsche – the pointy-end pew is generously proportioned.

The 28"-wide seat converts to a 2m long flat bed, flanked by a long bench for storage, and every passenger is just one step away from the aisle.

Virgin Australia's A330s and 777 business class elevated the passenger experience.
Virgin Australia's A330s and 777 business class elevated the passenger experience.

If the swish seats and upmarket Luke Mangan meals weren’t enough, when the upgraded A330s take wing in September 2014 they include a custom Nespresso machine capable of serving real coffee above the clouds, while the Boeing 777 goes one step further with an inflight bar.

The unique and much-missed business class bar on the Virgin Australia 777.
The unique and much-missed business class bar on the Virgin Australia 777.

(If you’ve been keeping count, it was barely four years – from May 2011 to September 2015 – that, fuelled by fierce competition, Australia could arguably lay claim to the world’s best domestic business class.)

Virgin Australia’s A330s carried their last passengers in April 2020, shortly before the airline moved into administration and emerged as a 737-only operation.

Although Virgin is upgrading its 737 fleet with the new business class seat seen on its Boeing 737 MAX jets, there’s less certainly that twin-aisle jets will every return to the fold – especially as Virgin’s international partnerships continue to grow, with United Airlines now covering the US routes once flown by Virgin’s 777s.

For its part, Qantas continues to fly those Business Suite-equipped A330s on the east-west corridor, where it can press a clear advantage over its rival, and from 2027-2028 will replace the workhorse A330s with a fresh tranche of two dozen Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 jets, each of which are expected to carry the same business class as their long-range counterparts.

01 Jul 2021

Total posts 39

Virgin Australia is a mess now i'm sorry but those A330 and B777 were the best thing to happen to the airline and now there gone the airline just doesn't have any magic really anymore let's hope the 737 MAX can change that but from what i've heard from the Cairns to Tokyo route it's not looking good at all.

Seriously who wants to fly from Cairns to Tokyo in a 737 Max, Scoot fly their Dreamliners from Perth to Singapore and that's a 4 hour plus flight. 

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

04 Apr 2018

Total posts 11

The Business was exceptional. Sydney to LA was incredibly enjoyable, with good lounges at each end, quality seat and service, and fantastic dining options. To be able to wake up en route to Sydney, and enjoy your eggs Benedict with espresso sitting at the inflight bar was brilliant. 

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 712

At the risk of showing bias, I thought the Bar in J-class was quite a clever touch on the B777.  Think I preferred Delta's lounge in LA to the VS lounge there, its showers/bathroom were (and presumably still are) comparable to those in a 5-star hotel.  Have yet to enjoy UA's lounge there.  

Not 'bias' at all, B-T, I loved Virgin's 777 bar. It made the long flight seem shorter, was a great way to pass the time raising a glass with mates or strangers alike. Like jsm2090 I loved having my breakfast at the bar too, nice to be able to get out of the seat and stretch your legs, it was such a classy experience. UA's lounges are great, these are the Polaris lounges which are only for business class passengers, with a dining room, bar, showers, the works. United is a great partner for Virgin, and proves to me why we won't ever see Virgin back on long-haul international routes to the USA.

TMP
TMP

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

17 May 2018

Total posts 8

Miss the A330s to Perth and back, but at least VA still exists!

29 Mar 2017

Total posts 32

I will truly miss the A330 and 777 J class. It was a fantastic offering, and the staff were always incredible. Qantas never came close.

What a shame that Virgin and in most cases Qantas are flying from Perth to Melbourne/Sydney with only the 737’s, for up to 5 hours.

Who in their right mind would pay the outrageous Business Class fare ( unless of course you are a politician) and still have the seat in front of you jammed up against you from the inconsiderate passenger in front.

Fly Economy, pay for extra legroom and eat/drink in the Lounge beforehand.

Huge saving.

29 Mar 2017

Total posts 4

Great article and it brings back memories.  

As someone who flew J every other week MEL > PER from 2007-2018 I had a front row seat (geddit?) to this war, and reaped the benefits.  Combined with Platinum status on both airlines and eventually LT Gold with Qantas it was a golden era to travel - and we haven't even mentioned Qantas introducing domestic Business lounges.  Fortunately I rarely fly these days but I couldn't imagine slogging to Perth and back on a 737.  We were definitely spoilt in the 2010s.

What a superb business class this was, and the 'arms race' between Qantas and Virgin over those few short years shows the value of competition, we saw standards go up and airfares come down. A shame it ended the way it did, clearly John Borghetti's business model wasn't sustainable or at least not in the face of this 'capacity war' which resulted.

'The Business' introduced me to business class. Had a work injury, a week in ICU and then the company flew me PER - SYD Virgin business. After that I got hooked on frequent flyer points, never knew what I was missing out on before then. Will always hold a special place in my heart, being wined and dined on an A330 after being fed hospital food through a straw for a week. Wine and top shelf pain killers made for a dreamy flight.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 712

A pathetically 'Tragic' tale, but one I can relate to!  :-)

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

15 Nov 2021

Total posts 3

It's a shame how it ended up with VA1.0, it had the superior J class product. It sat between a J class and a F class product. The 777 bar was far better as well.

It's a shame VA2.0 haven't gone for a lie flat in the new max 10's, especially with a focus on short haul international routes. either as the new SIA 737 lie flat configuration or the Mint clas on Jet Blue. JB is the mid market equivalent and comfortably flies lie flats on its aircraft fleet.

Jetstar Airways - Qantas Frequent Flyer

13 Jun 2020

Total posts 11

Remember sitting in the bar on my way to Abu Dhabi what an amazing way to travel , so miss the VA experience 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Apr 2012

Total posts 317

We have Virgin to thanks for all the great competition. If it wasn't for them, we'd be flying around in "revolutionary" European Business class, with the middle seat blocked out.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

04 Sep 2015

Total posts 21

Yep,The Business was a fantastic experience,shame it disappeared as I am long term Virgin flyer.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

06 Mar 2015

Total posts 234

Over the past few year I always made sure I travelled to Perth on the VA A330 in Business Class as it was a real game changer but as it is now , Business on VA is not in any way shape or form  anyway near as  good a service on the B737.

I flew Business Class Brisbane to Perth (B737) and return a few weeks ago and it was less than good in all respects . The service seems to have slipped over the last 6 months , first drink nearly 40 minutes after take off, and the food offerings were awful particularly on the Perth - Brisbane sector. The meal served was the worst example of what was supposed to be lasagne I have ever seen, inedible! Also this B737  had  the new style of Business seats  and there is still no cabin divider fitted after almost a years trial so the feeling of having a Business Class section was absent completely. Also no rope divider so lots of Y passengers  a coming to the front toilet. 

There's no doubt about it whatever , the extremely fabulous A330 Business Class that VA had is sadly missed as it was amongst the very best there was. It would be so nice to even hope that a newer look VA would reinstate the A330 but alas I don't think that will ever happen. I will be doing more perth flights again but it won't be with VA anymore ,I'm going to give Qantas a go but only when I can fly on their A330's which will take a bit of arranging. 

VALE : The VA A330 Business Class Flights 

17 Nov 2023

Total posts 17

We came back on the QF A330 PER - MEL just today.

The food was very very average.  I don't care that there were 3 choices, when they were such poor choices - since when has beef brisket gone with Macaroni Cheese??  The chicken salad was chewy and plain.

I really miss the old VA business - did MEL - CNS one time and it was, without exaggeration, the best service and food I have ever had in Australia.

S
S

13 Sep 2013

Total posts 115

It was amazing experiencing the evolution of Virgin's J seats to Perth over the years. "The Business" was a real game changer and the best way to fly coast to coast. Had some very enjoyable experiences in The Business. Really miss it.


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